Long Reads

Wet Markets Are Essential to Thai Cooking. So Why Are They Disappearing?

On the long tradition of these vibrant cultural pillars, and COVID-19's threat on their existence.

September 14, 2020

In the harrowing early days of the pandemic, Prin Polsuk, a preeminent chef and scholar of Thai cuisine, could source many of his ingredients directly from farms and suppliers outside of Bangkok. But still, he visited Khlong Toei, one of the largest wet markets in Thailand, almost every day.

“The market makes me feel alive,” he tells me over a choppy video call, his youthful face framed by salt-and-pepper scruff. “I go there to get inspired.”

Wandering through Khlong Toei late one night during the year I spent cooking in Thailand, I was overwhelmed by this very aliveness. There were mountains of multi-colored chile pastes, mounds of bright red rambutan, stacks of dried squid and snake beans. The air was vibrant with the sharp smells of charcoal smoke and chili spice, and the buzz of conversation.

But as the pandemic ravages the globe, the future of wet markets appears uncertain. Early reports tracing the origin of COVID-19 to live wild animals sold in the Huanan market in Wuhan, China triggered an international panic, with many powerful figures calling for the worldwide abolition of wet markets.

“I think they should shut down those things right away,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a Fox & Friends interview in early April, citing the dangers of wildlife trade. Five days later, a bipartisan group of 66 US lawmakers echoed him in a statement calling for the “global shut down” of “live wildlife markets, known as 'wet' markets.” Recent evidence undermines the hypothesis that the novel coronavirus originated in Huanan, but demands for the elimination of wet markets have continued to spread. In their haste to act, the international community is at risk of making a catastrophic mistake.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I can appreciate what the author is saying about the cultural vibrancy and micro economies created by "wet" markets and what the impact would be if they were all shut down, but perhaps some conversation around what is being sold (fruits and veg vs. live animals) could be had. Clearly something went very wrong in Wuhan and the results are being felt around the world -- did we learn nothing about SARS? We need to balance the grassroots with health and safety and to ignore that aspect of wet markets, well, we are all living with the results of that action! ”
Comment

The sale of wild animals does present health risks—though experts caution against a global ban—but wet markets rarely sell wildlife at all. Possibly derived from the Cantonese for fresh produce—濕貨 (sup for), literally “wet goods”—the phrase was first used in Singapore and Hong Kong to describe markets selling fruit, vegetables, and prepared meat in open stalls, with perhaps a few live fish in buckets or chickens awaiting slaughter. In the panicked rush to cover the emerging pandemic, foreign journalists and political figures stripped the phrase of its nuance, equating wet markets and live wildlife markets.

This confusion has proven difficult to eradicate, perhaps in part because it plays into longstanding, toxic stereotypes of Asian (and more specifically, Chinese) eating habits. In his comprehensive history of American Chinese food, From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express, Haiming Liu quotes an 1853 column in the Daily Alta California that falsely claims “[r]ats, lizards, mud-terrapins, rank and indigestible shell fish... have been and continue to be, the food of the ‘no ways partickler’ Celestial, where flour, beef and bacon, and other fare suitable to the stomachs of ‘white folk’ abound.” Nearly a century later, in the 1944 hit, Meet Me in St. Louis, Judy Garland sings: “Chinaman eats dead rats, chews them up like gingersnaps!”

Some of the recent coverage of wet markets veers dangerously close to these old tropes. “What Happens in These Wet Markets Will Give You Nightmares,” warns a PETA video of vendors selling grilled, skewered rats and butchered dogs, set to foreboding music. This video is hardly alone in blurring the line between health concerns and cultural attacks.

“I admit [wet markets] are dirty,” says Chalee Kader, chef of 100 Mahaseth and Surface in Bangkok. But though he believes markets will need to transform in the coming years to meet a higher standard of sanitation, Chef Kader also sees how the traditions of Thai cooking take risks of infection or spoilage into account. “Every culture has their own way of maneuvering around these things to cook in a way that makes sure they're safe,” he observes. In Thailand, this means dishes with a squeeze of citrus or a shower of herbs rich in antimicrobial properties, and ancient fermentation technologies used to preserve fish, shrimp, soy beans, and other perishable foods.

Frank Hartwich, an agricultural economist working for the United Nations, sees “hazards” in wet markets that sell unrefrigerated meat, saying they “harbor all kinds of diseases.” But when I ask him about shifting informal sector food supply completely into supermarkets, he calls the idea “complete madness.” Wet markets, he explains, support an intricate network of local, small-scale producers; just the kind of people, he says, who are pushed aside by volume-oriented supermarkets. With short supply chains and limited infrastructure, wet markets force competing supermarkets to narrow their margins, preventing them from driving up prices.

“The more established companies in the world... are fighting this informal market,” he tells me. “They want to just get rid of it because it's in their way.” Wet markets, then, protect both consumers and local producers—as well as vendors—from being priced out of a rapidly globalizing, industrializing economic space. But their value goes beyond pure economics.

Wet markets support an intricate network of local, small-scale producers; just the kind of people who are pushed aside by volume-oriented supermarkets.

When I finished a two month stage at Bo.lan—a Michelin-starred restaurant in Bangkok where Chefs Bo Songvisava and Dylan Jones resurrect forgotten Thai dishes, and work with farmers to preserve traditional ingredients and sustainable practices—I asked the chefs for a next step in my study of Thai food. Songvisava hardly hesitated. “Go to the markets,” she instructed. Wet markets, she explained, are not just sources of ingredients, but also reservoirs of cultural knowledge.

Chef Kader, another advocate for local and sustainable ingredients, often taps this knowledge in developing his menus. “If you're looking at some vegetable,” Kader explains, “[vendors will] ask you about it, ‘what are you going to do with it?’ That five or ten seconds of conversation, that exchange gives you this knowledge you cannot find in any book or at any supermarket. Nothing compares to it.”

And in contrast to the streamlined uniformity of produce and products typical of supermarkets, wet markets, particularly in Thailand, display a regional specificity and variety of ingredients I find staggering. “You can be dropped into a wet market in Thailand,” says Austin Bush, a photographer and author who has spent the last fifteen years covering the intricacies of Thai food culture. “If you were familiar with Thai food and looked around a bit you would probably be able to determine what province you were in just by the stuff on offer there.”

Traveling the country by bus, on Chef Songvisava’s advice, I got a taste of the markets’ diversity. In Nan, a town in northern Thailand, I saw market stalls heaped with bundles of mouth-numbing makhwen; stacks of the dried, fermented soy cakes called tua nao; and wild-foraged greens like bitter dragon tongue, to be grilled and served with laap. In Trang, a southern town near the Andaman coast, the markets were filled with vegetables harvested in the nearby hills; tannic purple-green cashew leaves and mango shoots; fresh fish mere minutes from the sea. Even an hour’s travel by bus was reflected in the shifting contents of the markets, the kaleidoscopic display of a culture deeply attuned to place.

Wet markets’ value can, perhaps most directly, be measured in their resilience, even in the face of government and corporate pressure. In 2002, China instituted the “Wet Market Transforming into Food Supermarket” program. But a 2015 paper, published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, describes the attempted transformation as “painfully slow,” citing consumers’ preference for traditional markets as a key factor. When I ask Chef Kader if he thinks supermarkets will ultimately replace wet markets in Thailand, he shakes his head. “I think they’re the soul of each city, the soul of each town. No supermarket can replace that.”


The push to eradicate wet markets, in China and beyond, is hardly new. In the early 20th century, New York’s Lower East Side was filled with over 2,500 pushcart vendors selling affordable produce and other goods. But in 1938, in preparation for the World’s Fair, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia cracked down on the pushcarts, driving many vendors out of business and herding others into covered markets designed to hide them from the public eye.

Food historian Sarah Lohman sees this as one factor in the eventual depopulation of the Lower East Side, as a thriving neighborhood was deprived of a critical source of food, income, and community. Far from an inevitable march of progress, Lohman views this transformation as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. In his contempt for the market, LaGuardia remade it as something less vital, less useful to the community, than what it had been.

When I mention American lawmakers’ more recent determination to eliminate wet markets to Chef Jones, he doesn’t mince words. “Idiots,” he spits. In the international community’s haste to condemn wet markets, Jones sees fear of infection risk dovetailing nicely with governmental and corporate interests. “If you want to really safeguard humanity,” Jones suggests, “you should probably stop industrial farming completely and localize food chains and food systems.” This may be unfeasible, but the research seems to support him.

As Takeshi Watanabe, food historian and professor of East Asian studies at Wesleyan University, puts it, “a slaughterhouse is not necessarily more hygienic than a market.” Though industrial meat production is accompanied by a whole range of sanitation technologies, from antibiotics to cold chain storage, research suggests that it remains higher risk than low-volume, backyard husbandry. The wholesale replacement of wet markets (which tend to support small-scale, local agriculture) with supermarkets (which favor international commodity meat and big agriculture), could accelerate dangerous trends in the food system.

Wet markets’ value can, perhaps most directly, be measured in their resilience, even in the face of government and corporate pressure.

Extrapolating existing dynamics in the system, Watanabe imagines this transformation reaching nearly comical extremes. “Let’s say that China shuts down wet markets completely,” he muses. “Does it mean we're going to have more pigs flying to China, you know, on Boeing 747s? It's not actually as outlandish as it sounds.”

As the food system shifts around them, wet markets are changing, too. “Now everything’s commercial, chemical, big farms, they don’t concentrate on quality,” says Chef Polsuk. “Not the same, I feel, as before when I was young.” As large agro-business spreads, and small scale local farmers are threatened, some of the variety is lost. Where in Polsuk’s childhood in rural Lampang, the local market was filled with produce fresh-picked from the fields, now refrigeration allows for days-old product to make it into the markets, only to wilt within hours of purchase. With growing competition from supermarkets and pressure to improve their sanitation practices, there is no doubt that wet markets will continue to transform in the coming years.

Chef Polsuk agrees more change is coming, but on this he seems wistful. Many markets in Bangkok, he tells me, have already tightened their regulations. But he thinks Khlong Toei, whose tightly choreographed chaos has swirled on through the pandemic, is the most alive. And as Bangkok stirs after months of lockdown, that’s still where you’ll find him, in the small hours of the morning, searching for inspiration.


Have you ever been to a regional wet market in Thailand? Let us know in the comments.

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Rudica Ann Ratto
    Rudica Ann Ratto
  • TLS
    TLS
  • Sephi Coyle
    Sephi Coyle
  • Vicki Campbell
    Vicki Campbell
  • constancewilliams
    constancewilliams
Comment
Sam is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Find more of his work at arecipefordisaster.org.

10 Comments

Rudica A. September 21, 2020
Dog meat, cat meat exotic rare animals abused and in filthy cages. Many beaten, some boiled or skinned alive. Any ae some one's pet that has been stolen. They need to be shut down. There are videos that shows these things. My ancestors are from Asia and I can tell you first hand many of the foods that were cooked where terrible. Growing up in SF Chinatown I remember the most horrible smells coming from the open street markets. Really disgusting!
 
TLS September 21, 2020
The comments here are clearly from very ignorant people who have never set foot in Asia. A wet market has nothing to do with wild animals outside of China. Most wet markets don't slaughter animals on site, with the exception of chickens, as that's what Asians consider is fresh chicken. Keep in mind that there are still millions of people in this part of the world that don't own refrigerators, so if they don't buy it and go home and cook it straight away, the food will spoil.
Just because you live in a part of the world where things are done differently, doesn't mean people are wrong in other parts of the world. There are lots of wet and dry markets where I live and there are fewer salmonella outbreaks here than in the "clean" US, in fact, the few food recalls I've seen here have been imported US produce.
In over a decade of living and traveling around Asia I have never gotten seriously ill from eating the local food. I eat where the locals eat, although I'm obviously not going to eat in a really nasty looking place, but I have no problems with holes in a wall or street food.
In fact, I much rather eat mystery meat in Vietnam than the over proceed, mass produced gunk that is sold as food in the US.
Ignorance is bliss they say, but that's clearly a lie, as in case people want to abolish something they don't know the first thing about. Long live the Asian markets.
 
[email protected] September 21, 2020
There is no need for name calling in the comments section please -- people should be allowed to make their statements without you insulting them and calling them ignorant. No one is talking about abolishing anything. Please read the comments carefully before you go off on a rant. If you want your comments to be respected, then please respect others comments too.
 
TLS September 22, 2020
I guess you're the one that needs to read them carefully, as that's exactly what people are calling for. Just because China does something, didn't mean the rest of Asia is like that. No-one commenting here seems to have any first hand experience of wet markets, so all the comments here are pointless scare mongering that means nothing. And yes, it's ignorant people posting the comments, since if you haven't been to a wet market, you really have no clue what it is. Some of us actually live in these parts of the world and do our shopping in wet markets and I have never once seen any of the things that people are claiming here in the comments.
 
[email protected] September 22, 2020
Again - you've failed to grasp my message about your ability to be respectful without name calling -- you are entitled to your opinion as is everyone else, but it is just that -- your opinion, it is not truth. This is the part where I be gracious and just stop.
 
TLS September 22, 2020
Obviously it's more than my opinion, it's my every day life. If you're going to go around criticising a part of the world you've never visited, just because of something you saw on TV or read on the internet, then you're ignorant. The world isn't America and just because things are done a certain way where you live, doesn't mean it's right. If you're that narrow minded, I feel sorry for you.
 
Sephi C. September 21, 2020
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/08/31/did-pangolins-start-the-coronavirus-pandemic
 
Vicki C. September 20, 2020
Representing "wet markets" as alternately culturally invaluable and generally nothing more than a place to buy the occasional chicken or a fish is simply dishonest - at least for the purposes of such an article. If nothing else, there has been too much research already on SARS to not know better than that. Also, they are, in every instance that I've seen videos of, not just potentially strikingly unhealthy or unsanitary but morally abominable as well (which of course is the case on all counts with industrial meat production as well). Hardly everyone needs to murder (or live cook) a kidnapped and caged, terrified animal to be a great cook, or feels much inspiration to do so - and no amount of beautifully colored mounds of fresh spices, fruits or vegetables can make it otherwise. Given the gaping hole in the middle of this article, and the ever so inept attempt to fill it with manipulative, politically correct charges of cultural and racial attacks if anyone might have a problem with the flagrant moral ignorance found at such places, it must be noted that a great, great many people would hardly be able to stay numb to or otherwise blatantly ignore the moral ramifications of such "inspirational" places where live animals are left to patiently await their clearly pending demise among the inexplicable indifference and chaos of the human animal world, not because we can't feed ourselves quite well without such callous disregard for others, but simply because we'd prefer to do otherwise.
 
constancewilliams September 20, 2020
There is a social experiential element to shopping at a farmers market, which the writer clearly was trying to convey, and as a foodie, I appreciate his story.
On a smaller scale, wet markets are our small farmer markets in the US, though live animals are not traded. We have many recalls of big-Agri industrial farmed vegetables and fruits that include meat in the industrial food chain. Yes, we live in a global economy, and transmission of any virus has many ways to hitch a ride. We can't eliminate the flu virus, so what makes us think we can prevent any other virus. We could trace Covid19 to the Wuhan market, but like all prior Covids, it can mutate anytime, anywhere, and any species. We know one way to diminish the transmission of any virus simply, and that is if everyone gets on board with wearing a mask, washing hands, and social distancing until a vaccine helps reduce the death rate.
 
[email protected] September 17, 2020
I can appreciate what the author is saying about the cultural vibrancy and micro economies created by "wet" markets and what the impact would be if they were all shut down, but perhaps some conversation around what is being sold (fruits and veg vs. live animals) could be had. Clearly something went very wrong in Wuhan and the results are being felt around the world -- did we learn nothing about SARS? We need to balance the grassroots with health and safety and to ignore that aspect of wet markets, well, we are all living with the results of that action!